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The RISE Crew at Warren Wilson College, which looks at creative ways of decreasing sexual violence, currently is working on producing a zine that addresses domestic violence. I immediately thought of the church and religion which can practice its own brand of domestic violence. Below is a piece I wrote for the zine.

A Gospel song by The Gaithers begins, “I’m so glad to be part of the family of God…” then goes on to extol the many spiritual benefits family members enjoy. The song does not address the dysfunctional working so often in this religious family on earth—the Church. (This is the only song I have ever heard that successfully rhymes the words God and Sod and is not even trying to be ironic. See the lyrics and hear the melody here. )

While some find welcome, refuge & support in their local churches & faith communities, others face hostility, rejection & violence.  The institution of the Church, like marriage, regularly creates & maintains an oppressive system of power & privilege where some (often a very few) have the most say & control.   Abuse & domestic violence happen in these systems aided & encouraged by the imbalance of power.

I’ve seen women (and men)  in churches silenced, chastised & shunned because they suffer clinical depression. “Sister, you just need the faith of a mustard seed, not some pill.” Youth ministers tell queer teens that they need to repent of their “same-sex attractions” in order to enter God’s Kingdom & gain access to weekly youth group events.  Even when the sexually wayward youth “repents,” leaders treat the teen as suspect & deny access to youth leadership roles.

Religious abuse happens behind a loving smile—we only want what’s best for you—& carries the full weight of Biblical authority.

As a guy who likes guys who also happens to be Christian, I often get e-mails from fellow Christians admonishing me to conform to theirs’ (& what they believe to be God’s) beliefs & wishes for my body, relationships & sexuality.  I inform them that they are practicing abuse.  I write them,

You take a position of power over me using God as your elevated platform as you insist that your religion & sexuality are superior to mine. You disregard & disrespect my personal faith journey & my understanding of my own orientation, then you impose your sexuality & religion on me. This is abuse & I refuse to be part of an abusive relationship.

They often accuse me of being angry while insisting that they are not hateful. As a former Conservative Evangelical myself, I know they feel they act in love.  That’s what makes religious abuse so complicated & difficult to identify at the time.  As a result, some members of the church go Sunday after Sunday, year after year submitting to the abuse, denying themselves a voice or agency.  They may even practice the same sort of abuse on others.

Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew Shepard, a college student who was beaten for being gay and died a few days later as a result of his injuries, has stated that,

Church hurt is the worst kind of hurt.

She goes on to explain that it hurts so much because the Church represents God, the highest authority and a heavenly parent—a cosmic betrayal.  The religiously abused—the battered Bride of Christ—can flee the scene of the crime, but the effect of the abuse may linger and harass for years. Others stay stuck in the system, singing along all the while blaming themselves for their misery,  always forgiving those who sin against them, soldiering on in the faith.  In the midst of all the abuse & pain one can despair of ever being part of a healthy, respectful, thoughtful faith community. One can shut the door inwardly to the possibility of spiritual life, divine encounters, mystical wonder be it in a sanctuary, a forest or the bedroom. (Some are better off outside of a system of faith that has not only failed them but reeked havoc on their health & wellbeing.) Like many who survive all manners of abuse, no longer victims, the religiously abused can experience the pain that comes from being branded by an abuser even years afterwards & feeling the sharp sting of violation whenever they encounter religious symbols, language & people.

In my case I needed 10 years of therapy to help sort through the tangled mess of church-based abuse with all its resulting shame. In the words of CP Cavafy, the queer Greek poet, in his poem Growing in Spirit written over 100 years ago, I have needed to “violate both law and custom, and go beyond the established norm”

He who hopes to grow in spirit
will have to transcend obedience and respect.
He will hold to some laws
but he will mostly violate
both law and custom, and go beyond
the established, inadequate norm.
Sensual pleasures will have much to teach him.
He will not be afraid of the destructive act:
half the house will have to come down.
This way he will grow virtuously into wisdom.

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